Stringing it out…

As part of  my MA at West Dean College, I am writing episodic fragments of an original novel. Our tutor, Greg Mosse, has referred to them as ‘bricks’. Each one is a self-contained whole that can form part of the larger edifice.

I prefer to think of them as beads, or on a good day, jewels.

I have always liked jewellery. I even started studying jewellery design at Loughborough back in the Cretaceous. Words like ‘pendant’,’ talisman’ and ‘amulet’ are music to my ears – and I rather hoped I might find Firefrost or some other magical stone.

But I think I will stick to beads.

The holes line up allowing you to join them together. If I am to write a first book worth reading, it will have a single narrative thread. I know cleverer people than me can weave many strands into complex webs – but at least to start off with, I’ll go for one bit of band.

My episodes vary in length, colour and shape like faience or toho seeds. I can arrange them in groups to make a sequence that becomes steadily more dramatic – like a graduated row of pearls.

I need to work with all the right pieces and I need to believe I can create them one at a time.

I find I have to revise , to reorganise the pattern. Sometimes there are missing sections – like the  Murano chevron bead that rolled under the workbench. Sometimes a whole section has to be unstrung and redone. But always to an underlying structure.

And the structure has its rules. There are demands of genre – you don’t make short story earrings if your reader wants a an epic lariat. But rules can be played with. The mash-up of expectations can create wonderful things. Intersperse your Native American hair-pipe with your dichroic glass and see what happens. I am popping gargoyles into the world of Jane Austen and Celtic selkies in Heartbeat coastal Yorkshire. Why not?

It is through experiment bounded by a given form that new things can emerge – and its unique quality is the way the maker puts it together. This works as well with a novel as a necklace.

A small matter of education for all…


Regular readers of my posts and my tweets will know I love libraries. I mean to write about them again and here are some reasons

                As a consequence of the Comprehensive Spending Review 400 libraries are under threat. Compare this with the situation in South Korea where 180 new libraries are being built.

South Korea is top of the PISA international rankings for competence in reading. In ten years the UK has fallen from seventh to twenty-fifth. This is no time to cut libraries.

  • I checked about Korea and the reading stats

    courtesy of


After all that, I have nothing left to write except Support Your Local Library!

What’s inside?

This afternoon, I stood waiting for the bus from West Dean. I began to chat with a young woman studying metal conservation and we reached the inevitable conversation about books. What she liked, she said, was when the characters had “a life between the pages”. It kept me thinking on the way home.

I connected this to something Jean (a colleague on the West Dean Creative Writing MA) had elaborated upon. We were considering how much of yourself you might wish to reveal as an online author and Jean put forward a concept of layers- perhaps like a daffodil bulb, or the shells of an atom. Deepest and most concealed was an inner self that no-one is privy to. Then the private person that our friends and family see, followed by an outer professional self which we might post. The best characters, it seems to me, give the sense that all the layers are there.

If you trawl the internet looking for how to create characters, or read a fair few how-to books, you are often told about character description. It strikes me that this is only the outer layer – the appearance that the character gives. It’s down to authorial decision whether to show what they look like – but as in business, you only get one chance to make a first impression. You can only do it once.

Next comes the personal layer – likes and dislikes, musical taste, the sort of stuff you might post on your Facebook profile. It may inform their mannerisms, tics, the things they do when talking.  All well and good – but still fairly superficial. You’re not really giving much away.

Now we come to something much more intimate . This is where the conscious anxieties lie, where the dreams reside that the character might share with her closest friends and family. This is the stuff that makes a difference. It will be largely behind the scenes, suggested by action or hinted at in speech. But it is the very innermost core, full of secret desires and fears, that provides the character’s volition. It provides the unseen addiction, the desperate need that gives energy to the forward momentum of the plot.

When you have all these, then you have a character.

As my bus reached Chichester Cathedral, I made a further connection. Kate Mosse, writer of Labyrinth and Sepulchre, explains how her characters can seem at first to stand behind her, just out of view, hazy and indeterminate. Then they step forward, next to her and assume a solid form. She starts writing only as they move off on their own adventures – and she records what they do. For me, then , my characters can only have a life ‘between the pages’ , can only step out into their world when I have fully imagined what’s inside each layer.

Why bother?

You might well wonder. Why would any sane person face rejection after rejection, hours of work for an income of maybe £5k,  and people asking ‘so what’s your proper job?’ or ‘are you the next JK Rowling?’ One answer, of course, is that children’s writers and illustrators are not sane!

A recent  SCBWI group topic set by Candy Gourlay  was  “Authors and Illustrators in Waiting … How are you coping?‏”  Paul Morton of Hot Frog Graphics came up with an excellent response:

 ‘ keep at it and keep believing’

 I rather thought that could well be a SCBWI motto. It also set me to thinking about optimism in general.

It is hope that that inspires people to make New Year’s resolutions. Although we can be a little dismissive of such clichéd vows, we have to admire and learn from those who do make it through the grotty days of January and February sticking to their promises. The tough nuts who carry on cycling to the gym, the reformed smokers, the impressive slimmers – each deserves our admiration. Indeed, any sort of promise or vow is predicated on hope: I believe it is another reason why we love weddings, and why a baby brings joy.

Sometimes the sheer difficulty of attaining your dream can make hope shrivel. It seems hidden, and keeping going seems more a case of dogged determination than optimism. Tolkien had Aragorn hidden and named Estel  (Hope) as a child. He made the future king of Gondor wander the wilderness for the best part of sixty years. He suffers moments of terrible self -doubt:  “An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes  amiss”  – but his stubborn determination and belief in good over evil end in triumph.

It is also hope that makes campaigners speak up for the things that matter to them:  campaigner Steve Ross and children’s writer Michael Morpurgo bother to call on the government to “stand up” for libraries on Radio 4’s “You and Yours” as part of the show’s debate into library closures.  Why Kate Mosse, Philip Pulman and Alan Gibbons keep banging on about this too – because they have hope. And it was why anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano wrote:

I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice, resting on the British government, to vindicate the honour of our common nature.

Just as well something else other than  the world’s ills came out of Pandora’s Box.

Seven things in Seven Weeks

1. Coffee is necessary – or any substance that keeps me attentive enough to learn about semiotics, transitions and why the passive voice is A Bad Thing.

2. Sleep is not as necessary as I thought. Sheer delight and interest in this writing lark can keep you going – though sometimes it’s down to dogged persistence. (Why do I have images of the Fellowship leaping from falling pillar to falling pillar in Moria in Peter Jackson’s film of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ playing in my head as I write this?)

3. Everything that tells a story is worth thinking about – Foyle’s War, the songs of Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer, the opening of the children’s film ‘Robots’, even the Archers. It’s got to the point where I watch an advert and think, ‘Well they don’t waste their time on flashbacks and psychonarration much, do they?’

4. Many creative people are really generous – with their time, their knowledge and their encouragement. It’s amazing how supportive people can be: quotations to help my academic work from Bel Mooney and Susan Hill; lifts from Greg Mosse, Jean Levy and Kerry Edwards  – and so many people at West Dean College who have taken an interest.  The other writers on my course are a great bunch who put up with my interruptions, stupid questions and me bombarding them with half-formed piffle to read with good grace.  Thanks Abla, Anita, Carol, Dana, Davy, Helen,Kerry , Jean, Joe, John, Lucy, Olivia, Susie and Suzanne .

5. Weird has its place in the scheme of things – I don’t feel quite so out of place in a setting where making giant apples out of willow is encouraged, where the Principal Rob Pulley  scoots round on the wheelie chairs with as much enthusiasm as the rest of us in our long  gallery and where 20’s  Surrealism is a frontrunner for the Christmas Party theme.

6. Being properly edited hurtsbut it does you a power of good; which does make it sound rather like having your tonsils and adenoids out, admittedly. As yet I haven’t much idea of how my work is likely to be perceived by a reader, so seeing the error of my ways (useless gerunds, non sequiturs and editorialising) has been a salutary experience. Bring it on!

7. Writing well is a really emotional business – and the community at WDC is such a blessing. You would be amazed how a little wave from Kate Mosse, or a kind enquiry from Roger Bown, or a smile from  Stephen  & Martin the Security men can make such a difference.